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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Fresh Start for News Ombudsmen?

Actor Steve Coogan speaking at the ONO conference
The Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) met earlier this month in its annual gathering. This year we were in Hamburg, Germany and hosted by the local newspaper, the Hamburger Abendblatt, part of the mighty Axel-Springer media chain.

Over the past few years, these meetings have felt a bit gloomy due to declining membership in those parts of the world that once supported independent news ombudsmen. At one time, North American media dominated ONO meetings. No longer. Many US newspapers have abandoned the position. The ostensible reason was economic: in the US and Canada, ombuds were appointed from the ranks of senior (well paid) journalists, usually in advance of retirement. The recession of 2008 has left a gaping hole in the ONO ranks.

But this year the ONO convention saw an influx of younger, middle-rank journalists more amenable to the changing media landscape and the technologies that accompany these uncertain times. There were also more women in attendance, thus changing the impression that ONO is mostly a club of wise old (white) men.

We talked (at length) about the effect of media convergence on journalistic quality, how to convey media criticism without inferring a lack of patriotism, how to comment safely about blasphemy laws in some countries. In many countries, being the ombuds is not either a safe or easy role to fill.

We heard from a long time ONO member from Turkey Yavuz Baydar, who was fired from his newspaper specifically for advocating a less supine position for Turkish media. He now is deeply engaged in writing and advocating for a return to press freedom in his country. Yavuz was awarded the prestigious European Press Prize this year (equivalent of a Pulitzer), along with The Guardian for his work on behalf of independent journalism.

And we heard from the British actor Steve Coogan who has become an activist in the group "Hacked Off" dealing with the excesses of UK tabloid culture. He was warned not to make enemies among certain journalists and media companies. He too has endured appalling pressures and intrusions.

We were welcomed most warmly and most eloquently by Olaf Scholtz, the Mayor of Hamburg who spoke eloquently about the necessity for vigorous journalism. (It was hard not to compare and contrast with the present mayor of Toronto...).

I found the shrinking list of American ombuds to be a depressing commentary on the state of the media in the US. But the presence of so many engaged ombudsmen from the Middle East, Germany, and Latin America is very encouraging.

The idea of news ombudsmanship keeps growing. One can only hope that spirit will return to the country that created ONO more than thirty years ago.

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